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Supply Chain News: Sorting through the Options for Software Support of Automated DC Systems


Gartner Framework Runs across Alphabet Soup of WMS, WCS, MFC, and WES, but there are Many Options

July 23, 2019
SCDigest Editorial Staff

There is no question there is growing interest in automation of all sorts in distribution.

That comes from a variety of factors, probably led by difficulty in finding and retaining DCs workers. But both the high costs of order picking for ecommerce and beyond and the need for rapid cycle times are also key factors.

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"A WES can suggest the best routing for activities based on current loads in manual work areas and automated equipment,” Gartner adds.

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Confusing to most distribution managers is that there are a lot of options for software support for automation, sometimes referred to as material handling equipment (MHE).

Those include:

Warehouse Management Systems (WMS): Full management of DC operations, though capabilities can vary widely across both "best breed” and ERP WMS solutions

Warehouse Control Systems (WCS): Generally the systems that direct the actual transport and transfer of goods on automated or mechanized systems – though often, for a variety of reasons, the WCS can wind up with a lot of smarts.

Material Flow Control Systems (MFC): Similar to WCS, but even more basic routing of goods on conveyor systems.

Warehouse Execution Systems (WES): A new category of distribution software, WES solutions - which vary widely in capabilities - are in general focused on getting greater throughput from MHE systems from work optimization, and/or connecting labor resources with automated system requirements. WES is meant to augment WMS capabilites.

To help distribution and logistics IT managers sort through the options, Gartner analysts Dwight Klappich and Simon Tunstall recently released a classification scheme for thinking about software support for automated systems, from basic to leading edge,

A summary of the eight Gartner-identified scenarios is provided below:

Option 1: Simple Warehouse with ERP Only (No WMS), Limited Automation: A very simple warehouse environment that uses ERP warehouse functions. It does not have a true WMS, but rather a small amount of limited automation. In these scenarios, an ERP may connect directly to some PLCs, or to an MHE vendor's WCS or MFC.

Option 2: Simpler DCs with Low Levels of Automation: In such as DC environment with just a little automation, Garter says that he WMS can connect directly to the PLCs and/or robot fleet management system. This typically involves tailored integrations, but Gartner notes some WMS vendors have prebuilt integrations to specific systems.

Option 3: Moderate Complexity, High Level of Automation: In a moderately complex DC environment with a relatively high level of automation, Gartner says companies can directly integrate the WMS with the vendor's MFC or WCS, if all the equipment is from one vendor.

Option 4: Complex Warehouse Environment with Moderate to High Levels of Automation from One MHE Vendor: In this type of environment, Gartner says companies can integrate the WMS with the MHE vendor's WCS. This is most appropriate where the DC is using equipment only or mostly from one MHE vendor. This scenario can be seen in moderately automated or highly automated environments.

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Gartner notes that some MHE vendors also offer their own WMS's, which can be tightly integrated to their WCSs. Some of these vendors may not offer advanced WMS's for manual environments, or environments with a tight blend of complex manual processes and automation.

Option 5:
Assess Your WMS Vendor's Support for Varying Levels of Automation: Gartner says companies can opt for a WMS vendor that has experience integrating with various types of automation in order to seek their guidance on the best solution for the environment.

Option 6: Complex Warehouse Environment with Extensive MHE Automation: Gartner notes that in a complex environment with extensive MHE automation from multiple sources, and where a company will be selecting a new WMS, shippers should consider using a WMS that has an embedded WCS or offers a WCS separately as part of its package.

Why? Because this can allow for a selection of equipment from various MHE vendors, or equipment that is in various stages of maturity.

Option 7: Use an Independent WCS in an Environment with Mixed Maturity/Brands of Automation: There is a class of independent, specialist WCS providers that have experience integrating with multiple types of automation in a mixed manual and automated environment, and/or an environment with mixed maturity of equipment, Gartner says.

This approach has the advantage of independently optimizing processes for automation and WMS. Gartner says that there could be further advantages in optimizing other work activities (apart from the concerns that WMS or MHE vendors may have).

However, the disadvantage to this approach is the lack of clear ownership by either the WMS, WCS and MHE vendors in terms of performance. Going down this path requires clearly defining the line of accountability between systems.

Option 8: Use a WES in Highly Complex Automated Environments and in Mixed Manual and Automated Environments: Gartner says that for highly complex automated environments and complex environments with a blend of intensive manual processes and automation, companies should consider a WES that is embedded within a WMS, or a WES that could be classed as a WCS Plus. (Gartner says a "WCS Plus" is a WCS that also provides WES-type capabilities, optimizing based on algorithms and the potential to manage the interplay between automated and manual processes prioritizing their deployment.)

"A WES can suggest the best routing for activities based on current loads in manual work areas and automated equipment,” Gartner adds, noting "A WES also offers the potential for other types of advanced optimization, such as blending wave management with advanced waveless functionality, often incorporating machine learning."

A good segmentation on this increasingly important topic from Gartner. SCDigest will note the reality is there are many permutations across these eight options. The one key takeaway: do the homework needed to get it right.

Any reaction to this Gartner DC automation software framework? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.




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